Intro. [Recording date: April 5th, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is April 5th, 2021, and my guest is philosopher Agnes Callard of the University of Chicago. This is Agnes's third appearance on EconTalk. She was last here in September of 2020 talking about aspiration.
I want to thank Plantronics for providing today's guest with the Blackwater 5220 headset.
Agnes, welcome back to EconTalk.
Agnes Callard: Thank you.
Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is anger. I want to let parents listening with children know that we may get into some adult themes. If you're one of those parents listening with children I'd love to hear if you care that I warn you in advance.
Russ Roberts: So, let's get started.
Agnes, you argue that anger is a moral sense. What does that mean? What do you mean by that? Explain.
Agnes Callard: So, we don't get angry just when there's something we don't like. That is, that's not sufficient. Like, if I want a cupcake but I don't have one, typically that's not going to make me angry. I get angry when I think I don't have something but I deserve it. So, anger is a response to the perception that the world is not as it ought to be. It's a principled response, or at the very least it takes itself to be principled.
People who are angry tend to be ready with reasons to explain why they're angry.
Russ Roberts: I'm fascinated by that summary--a very short summary--because I have found myself getting angry that COVID is still persisting. I find myself getting angry sometimes when it rains and I have something planned. Sometimes I get angry when it's colder out than I anticipated. And, I find those responses to be somewhat irrational, and I fight against them. Do you think I should?
Agnes Callard: So, one thing we might do is take every instance of anger and plot it on a spectrum, and the spectrum would be the extent to which you're able to provide a kind of rational backing for your anger.
My inclination is to think that people fight against their anger--and also the anger tends to be transitory when there's very little of that rational backing available. So, if you're angry that it's raining, I don't think it's impossible to have a kind of proto-moral thought, almost like a half-thought: 'It shouldn't be raining,' or 'COVID should be over by now.' Right?
So, but not all of the normative judgments that we're inclined to make are ones that we would sort of stand by. And I think we view our anger as irrational precisely when we don't on reflection stand by that judgment.
Russ Roberts: In Jewish thought--I think I have this right--anger is often described as a form of idolatry. And, I think that gets part of what we're talking about, the idea being that: if you think you deserve to have a rain-free day you kind of put yourself at the center of the universe in a way that is, I mean, so irrational, because you understand, rationally, when you think about it that rain is useful for the world at large. You might even think rationally that the rain falls equally on the wicked and the just alike, which is a deeper statement about life than just rain.
But, certainly the idea that, when things go awry for me I'm somehow being violated--right?--I have a sense of moral indignity because I wanted control and I want it to turn out a certain way--is a form of self-centeredness that's a little bit--I argue, whether you're religious or not, I think you should perhaps think about pushing back against that as a moral response.
Agnes Callard: I think it's fair to call that one a case of idolatry. But, notice you're picking cases of anger that are bad cases. Right? And we don't want to form our theory on the basis of those cases.
What I would say is that there's something divine about anger: that anger is a way of sensing that the world is not merely a collection of empirical facts, but has a basic normative structure.
Now if you get that normative structure wrong and you center it on your own experience, that's idolatry.
But, anger is also a form of worship and a way of apprehending the divine order. I mean, God gets angry in the Bible, right? He gets angry when Cain kills Abel. He hears the voice of Abel's blood calling out to him from the ground, and hearing that sense is a moral sense. The way that he hears it is by getting angry.
Russ Roberts: So, let's dig into that--not the question of whether God has emotions, which is an interesting question. We'll put that out for another time. But, this idea that anger is a response to injustice, that's the way I would summarize your claim here.
And, I've argued here on the program a number of times that anger is an unhealthy emotion, other than in a situation where you're physically in danger.
If you are physically in danger, anger can be very powerful. Adrenalin kicks in. But, my suggestion has been in the past, and I want you to try to convince me otherwise, and I think you might be able to because you're very convincing--I want you to convince me that--so, let me make my argument.
My argument is that emotional response to injustice that we're talking about here is a loss of control of one's rational self. It is a visceral, in your guts--viscera, meaning in your insides--it is a visceral, physical response. Literally it's an impulsive response that you could argue one has no control over.
And my suggestion in the past has been that you should learn to control that: that that's not a helpful response to vocalize.
You might not be able to help the visceral response, but to vocalize it, to put it into action, is a mistake because you're giving up your rational sense and replacing it with an emotional sense. What are your thoughts on that?
Agnes Callard: So, I don't agree. Though I think that that might be the right advice for some people some of the time.
I think that your advice is basically advice that would be good to everyone who is really fully self-sufficient and in no need of any kind of humility or moral education from others.
Um, so the way that I see it is that anger is a way of reaching out. It's not always a good or productive way, but it is a sign that the person in the relevant situation is no longer self-sufficient.
So, some of what you say I think is quite right. The idea about the loss of control, I think that's right. You've lost your ability to run your own life by yourself.
Now somebody who's lost their ability to run their own life by themselves, you can tell them, 'Learn to run that by yourself.' Just 'Get better at being self-sufficient.'
But I think that that's sort of ignoring a reality for many of us, which is that we are not always self-sufficient; and there is not always some measure we can take to become that way.
Maybe--let me take a step back, though, and sort of explain where this kind of kind of loss of control comes from and why we're susceptible to it. So, I think that--
Russ Roberts: What do you mean by self-sufficient in that context?
Agnes Callard: Yes. That's exactly what I want to explain.
So, I think that we get through every day, really every moment of every day that involves choice, on the basis of principles. I think quite literally we're living off of our principles, in the sense that: in order to choose to do one thing rather than another you have to have some sense that that thing is worth doing.
I said 'only insofar as choice is involved,' because some of our emotions and behavior are not under our control. Right? Some of our emotions and behavior are reflexive or habitual or--you know, you can drive somewhere and barely notice all the turns you took, right?
So, you know, it's not the case that we're always choosing, but we are sometimes choosing. We're in fact often choosing, and we're often sort of endorsing the things that we're doing.
You can only do that if you see the thing that you're doing as being in some sense valuable. So there's a kind of value understructure that girds all of our lives, a sense that some things are meaningful and important and there are some principles that are worth adhering to.
So, people need that. Like, they deeply need it in the sense that they literally can't move forward: like, they can't physically move themselves one inch forward by choice without some kind of thought-structure like that.
Now, where does that structure come from, and, why do we have it, and, how does it stay in place is a huge mystery. And I spend a lot of my time thinking about that.
But, a big part of the answer to that question is other people, that is--we hold on to our values, our principles, or sense of what matters and what has meaning by way of the help of other people. So, we co-value things with them.
And, there are ways that other people can behave that make us--because we're relying on their help, they can defect. They can decide not to help us. Right?
And there are ways that other people can behave that can make us lose our grip on our own principles.
That's what I mean by saying we're not self-sufficient.
And I think you get angry when you feel like you have lost a grip on this principle that is sort of deeply significant for you and is really in some way necessary for you to move forward.
And, I think that a lot of the 'Don't be angry'-advice is like saying to someone, 'Don't need other people. Just believe in your principles without any help from anybody else. Be totally independent. Be morally independent.'
Most of us are just not like that. We're just not--I think there are some people who can do that, but it's extremely rare. [?]
Russ Roberts: Well, that's really a provocative summary.
I'm going to try to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins accurately from memory, which I messed up the last time I did this. I think he says--the poet--says, "What I do is me: for that I came." You're suggesting that how I go through the world is a reflection of who I am, how I see myself, and that to do that I have a mix of my underlying sense of self; but, Adam Smith-like, I'm constantly bouncing that off of people around me to get confirmation that I'm doing the right thing. I might be pushing a little bit to see whether there's space for me to go somewhere a little different from the people around me without too much objection.
And, I certainly see that--using the metaphor I've used many times on the program with the dance floor--where you have to be aware, in prudence, of how your movements affect the people around you. I certainly see that in action.
In terms of principles, it's a much more interesting and complicated web that you're implying. For me you're tying it into a form of tribalism and identity that I need the people around me to confirm my principles and my sense of self.
And, I want you to tell me I'm right, and then I want you to react to this philosopher I know who taught me about aspiration that says--and that's you, for listeners who missed that previous episode--I want you to tell me how I integrate this vision of my daily action with your idea of aspiration, to aspire to something other than what I am now.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. Let me start with the last thing, which is that: aspiration is actually a great example of how valuation, the process of having values or something like that is like a social process. As I say in my book, we can't come to new values--we don't have the resources ourselves. And, we need to bounce off of other people in a variety of ways--through having mentors, through having heroes, through having people to compete with. Right? So, in fact, this conception of what it is to have the values fits pretty well with the claim that aspiration is a social process.
But, let me go back to the valuing being social. So, I'm coming to dislike the word 'tribalism.' Let me suggest a different word. The word I'd suggest is kinship. So, we stand in kinship relations to others.
I think it is true that the existence of those kinship relations is what gives rise to the vice know as 'tribalism.' But, it's a little bit like the issue of taking a theory of anger and choosing as your only example me getting angry that it's raining.
Like, you don't want to create your theory of kinship on the basis of the phenomenon of tribalism. Tribalism is a kind of negative vicissitude of the phenomenon of kinship.
And I think yes, you're absolutely right to bring up Smith. So, I think that this conception of how morality is social and that the social nature of morality is manifested in our feelings. But that's not even strong enough. I want to say something like materialized in our feelings. Our feelings are the fact that morality is social.
I mean it's not just Smith, right? There's a whole sort of--you know, the moral sentimentalists of the 17th and 18th century, right? Shaftesbury, Hutchinson, Hume. All of these people were sort of noticing that morality is not just a matter of reason, that morality is housed in our feelings.
And, when we're not doing philosophy on an everyday basis we are constantly sensitized to this fact. We take how other people feel about us as the most direct indication of, like, sort of how they stand to us morally.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I like your kinship point. It's a little bit to me like nationalism. Nationalism, I think--I've started to believe is probably a good thing. Nazism, not so much. That's a bad manifestation of nationalism, but that doesn't mean all nationalism should be rejected.
But, in terms of your definition of kinship, your mentioning of kinship, the way I would phrase it is--to make it even more attractive--is belonging. We want to belong, whether it's to our family, our community, our country, our world. And, kinship is the healthy form of belonging, and tribalism may be the not so healthy. Although tribalism I think is important, again, in a sense when you're under attack, although maybe kinship would suffice. Do you like that belonging idea?
Agnes Callard: Yeah. I mean it's a question of how we phrase the complement. Like, is it wanting? we want to belong? we need to belong? we do simply belong? And I'm not sure how to fill it out.
But, yes, I think that that is right. The way that I've put it to myself--so, in Greek there's this word 'filia,' which is translated, usually, friendship. Okay? But, it is much broader than friendship, because it would apply to the members of your family, which you would normally not call your your friends, right?
I mean, we could call them your friends, but the point is in English that's like a bit odd; and in Greek it's just normal to call them--and also like your fellow-citizens would be called your 'filoi,' your friends. We don't have an English word for this, for 'filia,' but the way that I think of it is like my people. Like, the people that are mine. Which is like belonging.
Because there's a bit--one use of 'filos' that I think is so interesting in the--I can't remember whether it's--I think it's in the Iliad. It might be in the--but Odysseus talks to his own heart and he calls it 'My dear heart, my filos heart,' where what it really means is my own. He's trying to brave and he like talks to his own heart. So, it's sort of my own something, right?
So, we call other people 'our own' under certain circumstances. First and foremost the members of our family; but then there are lots of groups that we call our own. And yes, I think that that can be glossed--'belonging' would be another word for that.
And I think it's hugely important for a variety of reasons, but the one that I am focusing on is: it is actually important for our ˆhaving a moral sensibility.
This kind of belonging is partly what constitutes our moral sensibility.
That's not a good thing about us, by the way, that itself. It would be great if we just had independent moral sensibilities that were not so reliant on the people around us. And then we wouldn't need to get angry, I think, if we were like that.
So, Socrates is someone who seems really not to get angry. He doesn't seem to get angry at the Athenians for putting him to death. He has this amazing ability, this amazing equanimity. And so I'm sort of open to the thought that maybe somebody--there could be people who don't get angry, and they might be admirable in a certain way.
But, it doesn't follow from that, from the fact that there could be people who have that level of moral independence from others, that that's a realistic prospect for most of us.
Russ Roberts: I want to try something different and see if you agree. For me, it took me a long time to realize that when someone expresses anger to me, my first emotional reaction is, 'Oh, they don't like me.' But in fact, it often means something very different.
And when I can remember that it means something different, I don't have to react to their anger with either my own anger back or my own loss of self. I just go, 'That's interesting. I've touched a nerve.'
And I think this dynamic of emotional response which I can misread as, 'Oh, they're angry at me'--in fact, they're angry sometimes at themselves. And their anger is a manifestation of that discomfort, or a manifestation that I've poked into a corner of their beliefs that is sensitive. What do you think of that?
Agnes Callard: Yes, I think that that's right. So, you know, that people's anger points are going to be precisely those principles where they feel like they're most in need of other people's help in sustaining them.
And so, at a societal level, you're going to get anger around whatever principle we feel, we as a society feel most insecure about, too.
So, like, right now I would say, like, there is a lot of sensitivity around racism. Right? Maybe like five or 10 years ago there was more of it around sexism.
And, so that means that a lot of actions and behaviors can easily get swept into that moral sensitivity, and it's because we don't feel sure of our own principles.
So, I absolutely agree. That's what it is to touch a nerve. And that's--I think, you know, you shouldn't intentionally do it, touch the nerve. I think like that's a point of vulnerability and you can identify it. And there are positive and negative ways to deal with that situation, but we often do it without intending to, I think.
Russ Roberts: When you say you shouldn't touch it, do you mean: I shouldn't touch it in you? Or: you shouldn't touch it in yourself? when you are being in a conversation, say?
Agnes Callard: I think that one shouldn't intentionally provoke people.
Russ Roberts: Isn't that your job as a philosopher?
Agnes Callard: Good. So, I think that this is like--there is a very, very fine line, and I don't always walk it well, between provoking people in such a way that you make them feel like they lose hold of their moral sensibility on the one hand, and provoking them in such a way as to facilitate their inquiry into their own moral sensibility.
And that is so hard, right? And that, Socrates, for instance, walked that line, like, his whole life. And, at the end of his life he was put to death because people thought he was doing the other thing. Right? They thought that he was in a sense undermining social morality by calling the more principles of society in some ways into question. Whereas, really what he was trying to do is get people to have a better grip on those principles by inquiring into them. Right?
But, you're absolutely right. It can be so hard to tell the difference between those two things.
But, nonetheless, I think if you can tell that what you're doing is simply provocation, then I think you shouldn't do it.
If the issue is: Should you perhaps be willing to risk engaging in provocation for the sake of philosophical inquiry, I think yes, it's worth the risk.
Russ Roberts: I mean, it's a great insight for me now that I think about it, because you know, I like to think of it as staying between sort of bomb-throwing--conversationally where I just want to annoy people, which I think is shameful and shouldn't generally be done--versus educating, teaching, having an open conversation with an opportunity to learn for both parties.
I recently re-tweeted something, or responded to a tweet, and said it was provocative. That's a compliment, to me. The person who I said that to sent me a direct message saying, 'I provoked you? Sorry.' And, I think he meant it. I wasn't sure he was serious or tongue-in-cheek, but I think he was serious, because he sent it as a private message.
And he's British.
I think people in--I think the English--provoking is rude. Whereas, in America, to me, the way I was raised in the workshops of the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago, that was what our job was. Our job was to provoke. Our job was to get people to think about something they hadn't thought about before. And, it was often uncomfortable when I was on the receiving end of that as a presenter, but that was what it was about, and I would have called that honest inquiry.
But, I think you're saying there's a fine line between that and what we might call cruelty.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. I mean, I think you're right. I don't have a subtle view on which side of the line one should put the word 'provoke' or 'provocation.' I mean, if you think about it etymologically, it just means to call forth, or something like--provocare, so you could very well think of it in the positive way.
I just mean--I suppose the reason why I said that is I was saying it partly to myself. I do think I have some kinds of--I'm less--it's not that I can't be irritated or annoyed or made angry by what others do, but I am not--I don't tend to be angered by the sorts of things that anger others, so I'm not predictably angered by what--people are not able to anger me by intentionally taking actions to anger me.
And, because of that, for a long time I was kind of blind to the thought that there was something bad that I would be doing if I was intentionally angering them. Like I so[?] didn't see it. Only in the past couple of years have I come to see that it's bad.
The main reason why it's bad is that it distracts attention from inquiry. If people are angry, they're not really listening to what you're saying. And so, you have to somehow find a way to--like, the issue here, right, is that inquiring into norms sort of destabilizes them. And, wronging someone also destabilizes those norms. So, inquiry feels a lot like being wronged.
And,I think it's important to acknowledge that it doesn't necessarily feel positive. People will say--this is Socrates--they're like, 'I feel like you're numbing me and you're making it impossible for me to speak, and you're hurting me. It feels like you're hurting me somehow.'
And, I think it's okay that it doesn't necessarily feel good; but you don't want to do it in such a way as to precisely raise up all the defenses that will make it difficult to inquire.
Russ Roberts: Well, I've had a handful of moments in my life--I suspect you do as well--where somebody says something to me that made me angry, about my own outlook on x, y, or z; and those conversations haunted me. There was something deep there that was challenging my own consistency or rationality. And, at some point in the future--at some point after that conversation, I realized: He was right. I was really inconsistent--I was a hypocrite, or I was being inconsistent, or my view was wrong. It was a violation of my principles; and my anger, as you said, was a response to that, a defense mechanism.
But it's kind of like a barb, like a hook. It sticks in you and then it doesn't easily come out. It persists like a thorn. And I think--I'm grateful for those--not at the moment, and there are some probably that just hurt me that weren't productive. But some are productive.
Agnes Callard: Right. And, if you think about: 'In virtue of what did those words stick into you and stick with you and be the sorts of things that you continued to reflect on?' it's probably the fact that you got angry, right?
So, anger was a kind of sign you gave yourself that this was of some significance. And, so being sort of cool and indifferent all the time and letting the words wash over you wouldn't be the optimal mode of learning. In some sense your anger was an indication that you are not self-sufficient and that you needed this person's input in order to move on, even if you couldn't quite process it at the moment.
Russ Roberts: So, let's go back full circle to our opening part of the conversation. This last part we've been talking about what I would call second person--how you should feel about causing anger in someone else. Let's go back to our own first-person reaction that you just alluded to.
I wanted to go back to my claim that one can have an angry response to a challenge--say, an intellectual challenge like that--or a personal slight, which we're going to come back to I hope at the end of this conversation. We're going to talk about jealousy, so obviously there's various things that the people we love can do to us that make us angry that aren't about the principle--those sort of intellectual, philosophical kinship-things we're talking about.
But, do you agree with me that when someone says something intellectually to me that I find offensive and it provokes anger, do you agree with me that one should notice the anger and try not to respond in kind? Or, do you think it's okay to respond in kind and express similar outrage, say--because we haven't used that word, but that's another extreme form of anger that--a little bit like tribalism--it has a negative connotation, perhaps?
Agnes Callard: I think you should not get revenge. I basically think no one should ever get revenge. And, I think that anger does motivate us to revenge.
I think it's nearly impossible not to seek revenge in some form, and so there is a question of what should you do all things considered, and then there's the question of which of the realistic options should you pick. Right?
Nietzsche thinks you should do small revenges to get it out of your system, so you don't do the big ones. That's not, to me, an implausible piece of advice.
I do think that, like, maybe the bigger meta-point is that, for me, anyway, I have to learn again how to manage anger with respect to every relationship that I have. So, anger changes for me depending on who I'm in the relationship with.
Anger--the process of managing anger is really the process of restoring the relationship, and thereby the norm, to its healed positive state. Right? So, anger is a sign that there's some kind of damage, both to the relationship and to the norm. And, how do you heal? Generally not by getting revenge--except maybe in some cases if Nietzsche is right.
But, how do you do it, like, with respect to a given person? Like, some people are such that--there's one person who, like, I'm close to in my life who I've had to learn that when we are angry with each other, I just need to give him like a little bit of time, maybe like two hours or something, and he will sort of recover from it. But, trying to push through at that moment and have a conversation doesn't get you anywhere. That's incredibly frustrating for me because it's not at all--my nature is like: Now when we're most angry is when we have to deal with this.
And so, with that particular person the lesson is: I just sometimes have to just deal with the fact that the anger is going to sit there for a couple of hours.
That's not true with everyone. Like, that's this person, and I had to learn that. It took years to learn that.
So, I think that there couldn't be a general theory--you know, a general theory of how you should respond to anger would be like a general theory of how to manage all relationships.
Russ Roberts: Right.
Russ Roberts: Well, let's talk about revenge, because I think that's a fascinating aspect of this. I think revenge is--the urge for revenge, which is a form of anger--and I think you say in your essay that Aristotle says that anger is a desire for revenge.
And, in this conversational motif we're talking about, say, something--I make you angry, and you respond angrily to what I've said; and I think, 'Ugh, I'm getting back at that,' and I up my response to strike back at you.
An aspect we maybe haven't emphasized enough--it's embedded in your point about kinship and belonging--is insecurity: that often anger is a sign that--I said I struck a chord that challenged your beliefs, but it's actually more like I've knocked a foundational thing out from under you, or vice versa, you've knocked something foundational out from under me; and it's a recognition that I'm insecure. I'm trying to stand on three legs now, or one, and I don't like that feeling. Right? No one does. Most people don't, I think.
And so, my natural response is defensive. It's like: I'm striking back and I need to hurt you back because you hurt me.
And, that in many settings of human history, is probably a good idea. 'You're attacking my castle, I better take care of you.'
But, I think in modern human relations, that's probably not a good idea. And so, what I try to do when I feel myself getting angry is ask myself whether you have merely tapped into a form of my own insecurity, and therefore I need to look into my heart and say, 'That's okay.' I don't have to be right about everything. I don't have to have every question answered. That's absurd. And I don't need to be angry about that anymore because it's not really important. Excuse me--it is important, but it's not a flaw.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, I think that there are--you know, people have different styles of responding to anger. And, one general style is: respond to anger, which is a condition of insecurity and destabilization, etc., and neediness by, in one way or other, making yourself--re-establishing the security and independence and self-sufficiency.
And, like, we've described two ways of doing that: one that you like a lot and the other that you strongly dislike. Revenge is an attempt to take matters into your own hands. So, it's an attempt to be self-sufficient, to solve the problem of anger, the problem of neediness and dependence by--like, in the sort of [inaudible 00:35:40] case just kill the other person. If the other person is gone then they no longer represent a threat to my values. So, that's one way to take matters into your own hands.
Another way to take matters into your own hands is to sort of detach and reflect and step back and de-emotionalize, right? And just, say, 'I can sort of step back to a place of security behind myself where I'm like: Look, it's okay. It's not a big deal. I might not know this.' That's also a form of responding to anger by sort of insisting on self-sufficiency.
Those are two ways of responding to anger, and I tend to think that the second one, the one you like, is in fact in most contexts better. The first one, the revenge one, is destructive.
But, for me the most interesting thing is that those aren't your only options. The menu isn't between destructive and nice self-sufficiency.
So, what I try do when I'm angry is I try to ask for help. Because, if what is happening when I'm angry is that I am unstable and I am in need of something from another person, then the natural thing is not to try to make yourself not need something, but to ask for the help that you obviously need. Right?
The problem is that, like, when you're angry the one person who can help you is the person that you least want to ask for help from. But, that's my own go-to response to anger--is that if I'm angry with this person then I have to find a way to ask for their help. And, I'll literally be, like, in emails--I'll, like, send them emails saying, 'Help! Please help me.' I'll, like, beg for their help.
And it's taken me a while to get to that point of realizing that's kind of the thing I tend to need to do. But, it may be that the reason I do that is I'm really pretty bad at that take-a-step-back, calm-yourself-down thing. That move just doesn't--isn't really available to me. Maybe if I could do that I wouldn't do the help thing.
But, I also wonder about whether or not the sort of social response to anger that I have--to sort of acknowledge that you actually do need this other person and you can't solve this problem on your own--whether there aren't also just varieties of ways of doing that, too. And I'm interested to think about that problem, which I haven't done.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to talk about jealousy and forgiveness in a minute, but before I do I want to take an intermediate step there and react to what you just said.
I give a lot of feedback to people who send me things--friends of mine who write things, they want to see what's your reaction. And vice versa: I send a lot of things to friends for reaction, that I'm writing. I'm writing a book; and when someone writes me back, 'This book is awful. I don't understand it,' my first reaction, guess what: anger.
But, I usually can take a step back and say: But, I need to hear from them. I need to know that they didn't like it because I need to learn something. It's crucially important. I would never want my friends to just say, 'Gee, this book is great, good luck with it. It's going to be fantastic,' or 'This essay is fantastic. Go ahead, send it out, publish it.'
How do you--when you say 'help'--so, I want to see that help email--I'm having trouble understanding what you mean by that in a--you can pick a more personal example if you want, but I was trying to pick a kind of neutral one that wasn't too--you know, not too revealing.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. I mean, actually, I think that comments on writing are a great example. I have a really wonderful editor for my column, and she will just tell me when something isn't working. And of course, I have an emotional reaction to it. But, it's amazing: she's always right. I don't know how it could be that someone is infallible, but basically she's infallible.
And so, it's like I just tell myself I'm not able to--you know, my first reaction is, like, I'm not able to see what's going on here, but, like, I'll see it later. Sometimes I'll say that to myself, 'I'll see it later.' Sometimes I can't even--like the jealousy piece that we'll talk about in a minute, there was a whole big part of that that her initial response was like, 'This part doesn't work.' And, I was like 'That's totally wrong. This is genius. It's perfect exactly the way it is.' You know. And, I sat on it for a year because of that. It took me a year to kind of really come to terms with the thought and realize 'No--she was right.'
So, that's--sometimes I just can't deal with it immediately and I postpone and then I come back.
But, that's with writing. Actually writing is less emotional, I find, than--for me some of thing that makes me angriest maybe is when I have a perception or a judgment about how things are and the other person in the relationship won't sort of confirm it or see it that way; and it makes me feel like I'm crazy.
And so, when I say 'help,' here's what I mean: I mean you either need to tell me that I'm right and this is how it is, or you need to help me see it your way. Those are the only two options. You can't just leave me here to have my perception of it and leave me alone with my perception, because then I feel like I'm crazy.
And so, this idea that some people have some of the time, where it's like, 'Look, you have your way of looking at this decision, I have mine,' for me that's just, like, unbearable a lot of the time. We can't leave it at: we have different points of view on this. We have to come to a shared point of view. It can be mine or it can be yours, but you have to help me with that.
Russ Roberts: One of the challenges of marriage, I think, is the fact that we don't remember the same things, and we don't remember the same things the same way. To take, again, a sort of a neutral example, my wife remembers things about our friends, encounters, dinners, travel we've done, where she'll say, 'Remember when--blah, blah, blah,' and I'll go, 'No, I don't.' I really don't. I'm not be recalcitrant or stubborn. And vice versa.
The way we might process an historical challenge that we face is going to often be very different, and sometimes that kind of a hard thing to reconcile, right? Memory?
And so, when you say, 'Help me see it your way,' the fact that you remember it as, say, a good time and I remember it as a bad time--let's take that as a nice neutral example--that's hard to reconcile, right? Because we both went through it together. We had the same--and my memory is you enjoyed that and your memory is that it was terrible, or vice versa. How do you get help for that? We're now moving into marriage counseling. This is great.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. A lot of--this particular kind of fight for me is a fight that comes up a lot in marriage, so that makes sense. It comes up with anyone I'm close to, but it comes up most in the context of marriage.
And, yeah, I think it sort of depends on how central that particular event becomes almost like symbolically, later, in later conversations. If the think kind of keeps coming up, then I do think you need a shared point of view, not necessarily on what happened or even on how you felt about it at the time, but on something like: Was it good or bad? What was good or bad about it?
It may be, for instance, that, like, while you thought I was enjoying it, I was suffering in certain ways; and I need you to acknowledge that suffering of mine. I need you to not just have your picture of the situation and rest with that, because, like, I want your understanding of the fact that I suffered there, to guide you in our future relationship.
Russ Roberts: I like that. I think that's true and I think, you know, obviously--I don't know if you're allowed to say this anymore, but I'm going to say it. I think men and women process these things differently and have different emotional needs and responses to these kind of both memories in real time. And I think there's inherent empathy that makes a marriage work in understanding that they can be different and it's okay.
Russ Roberts: Before we get to jealousy, I just want to come full circle on the dinner party anger. So, when someone says something that makes me angry at the dinner party, should I just keep quiet? Should I--you know, I've used this example before: When someone says something in favor of the minimum wage and I want to say, 'No, the minimum wage, maybe it's not good. Maybe it hurts the people that you think it helps.'
And, you and I had an off-air--unrecorded conversation on this where you said something profound I want to make sure we don't miss. You said, when someone responds to something like that--you said--this almost verbatim: 'The question is bound with their commitment to empathize with people who are less fortunate than themselves, and for many people that's a fundamental part of their identity. They can't suspend their commitment or let it go, and that's the source of their anger.'
Coming back to the very first thing you said about injustice, a normative sense of the world.
So, if someone says something to me about the minimum wage; I push back against it thinking I'm doing them a favor--I'm an idiot, but I think I'm doing them a favor by pointing out that the world's more complicated than they think--and they don't go, 'Oh, that's so interesting.' They say, 'You're a horrible person,' and the discussion is over. Would you react to that?
Agnes Callard: You know, one thing that's interesting--for some reason I was re-reading this bit of The Screwtape Letters. Do you know this text by C. S. Lewis--
Russ Roberts: Sure. Brilliant--
Agnes Callard: an older demon for a younger demon, and how to, like, tempt human beings away from Christianity? So, there's this wonderful bit of the exchange that I was reading yesterday where the older demon says that people have this principle of interpretation that they use. Everyone has a double standard, where they demand that their own utterances be taken purely at face value, and then they want to interpret the utterances of other people as having all kinds of secret meaning and significance and kind of bad intentions, right?
Russ Roberts: Yep.
Agnes Callard: So, I think that we're pretty inclined to do that and we get more inclined to doing it on certain topics actually--the double standard of interpretation.
So, it's like, you know, that's actually one of the things that goes on in these exchanges. That's not the thing I focused on last time, but I just focused on it because I happened to be reading this. It's like you--one thing they might hear you as doing is: They're not hearing the literal content of what you're saying. Maybe they're hearing you, they're interpreting you, as, like, teaching them a lesson about how the world is complicated--right?--where it's like, 'Oh, you think you know so much more than me,' right?
So, that's one of the things that's going on there, instead of just literally learning the thing that you're saying to them. Right?
So, in these hot-button issues or whatever, we're inclined to move towards this double standard of interpretation in conversation; and I think that's one thing that happens in these kind of tense moments.
But, what I was saying last time about, like, how they can't let that go, that's really just a way of putting the thing I was putting earlier about there's a norm or a principle that they use to guide their lives and they need to make use of it. They need it in order to live.
And quite often the ways that we have of hanging onto those norms is, like, they're sort of symbolic ways, so being in favor of raising the minimum wage is like a way in which I can express my solidarity to poor people, my commitment to improving the lot of poor people.
And, I think it is true that having these sort of heuristics or shortcuts or symbolic modes of expressing that creates problems sometimes for the taking in of information and for sort of judging new information in a fully detached spirit.
But, I also think it's not true that we could live without those heuristics. That is, we do have to have some way of hanging onto our principles. We have to have some way of representing them to ourselves.
The question of, like, how do you then conduct those conversations and, like, should the person get angry: that's a separate question.
I'm just analyzing what's happening, why--they're getting angry because you are pulling away from them a principle that they need in order to live. And the reason you're pulling it away from them is that principle is symbolically or associatively connected to claims about the minimum wage. And because you are doing that, they are starting to engage in this double standard of interpretation. So that's what I think is happening.
And then there's: How should one conduct oneself? And I think--I guess the way I try to conduct myself is: you still want to have those conversations. It's important to be provocative in a good sense. So, how do you have it in a good way?
I think it's you have to try to find a way to have it as inquisitively as possible.
So, like, in general, teaching people lessons doesn't work out that well. Anyway, what's the point of doing it? You're not learning anything, right?
So, you can be in a way more mercenary about it and just be like, 'What can I learn from this person's commitment to raising the minimum wage? What is there to be learned there?' And there might be nothing--in which case no point talking to them about it.
Russ Roberts: I think that's really deep, actually. It helps me a lot. I've argued in the past that if you want to proselytize, either ideologically or religiously, it requires a great sense of empathy, which most people who proselytize don't have. They have a sense of self-righteousness, which is not effective. It's the wrong marketing approach.
And then I came to believe that, actually, as a human being--forget it as a proselytizer--empathy is a really good thing to strive for: understanding why this person feels the way they do. I've given many examples over the years on the program. I'm not going to go into it now, but I want to tie this into this point I made recently I think in a Mike Munger episode, which your exegesis helps me understand a little bit better, which is this insight of Kat Rosenfield's in an advice column about how to think about these kind of dinner-party/anger settings, which is: My mode in life is often teacher. I'm a teacher. And so, a dinner party is just a chance to teach. That's all I'm doing. 'Why are you so defensive? Why are you yelling at me? I'm teaching you something. Pay attention.'
Strangely enough--this is Kat Rosenfield's point, and it's really your point--that's not why they're here. They didn't come for that. It's not like, 'Come for the food and stay for the education.' They just came for the food really, and maybe just affection, just connection. They didn't come to learn a lesson about the minimum wage. And in my zeal to spread wisdom, which is probably dishonest--that's what I tell myself. That's The Screwtape Letters thing: that's what I'm doing--they're not hearing that. They're hearing something else, like, 'Oh, this is a bad person. Why is he lecturing me?'
And so, you know, I think one has to be aware of the mode that the other people at the dinner party or in any conversation are expecting. Some people just want to banter. Some people just want to laugh. Some people want to learn. Some people want to spar verbally, intellectually. And others just want to have a nice meal and get through it.
I think this is a very--actually it maybe sounds banal to some people. I think it's quite deep. It's very helpful to me, too.
Agnes Callard: It's interesting, because you--you might think that the problem could be solved by just becoming a different kind of teacher. Like, so I teach Philosophy, where it's different from teaching Economics in that there isn't some set of facts about the way things are that I'm conveying to my students generally. I mean, there might be a little bit of that, but mostly it's like, 'Here's a question. Here's an argument. What do you think?'
They try to refute it and I respond, right? It's a conversation of that kind.
And so, you might think that I'm safe from the problem that you've just described, because if I were to start teaching I would do it in this way that is not just me holding forth, right?
Russ Roberts: Socratic.
Agnes Callard: Yeah, Socratic. It's not an all-true. So, like, I've totally done the thing that you described. In fact, I tend to be--I've noticed this--like if I'm on leave for a year, say, I go into teaching withdrawal; and I start, like, spontaneously teaching in inappropriate contexts.
I did this once at a conference, and it was philosophy conference. Right? This was with philosophers. It was a lunch. And I just started--I didn't even realize I was doing this. So, only later in retrospect did I put the framing on it.
But, I started teaching a class on ethical particularism, which is the view that there are no general moral facts, like all the moral facts are--right. And, like, I was like having a Q&A [Question and Answer] or whatever, and I noticed that--I didn't think of myself as teaching, but I noticed the person to my right was getting more and more annoyed with me. And I was like 'Why is he annoyed? This is a really good conversation and I'm making good points.' And, you know.
And it turned out that at the table--not the person to my right, but another person--was Jonathan Dancy, the philosopher who came up with ethical particularism, right? And I'm teaching this class in front of him, like, totally unselfconscious of what I'm doing.
And that's why this person was getting annoyed. It was like--he was like the keynote speaker, the respected--but he was fine with the whole thing. He wasn't, like, annoyed by it.
But, the point is there's this teacher mode that you can get into and not realize you're getting into, and it can be totally socially inappropriate. And, like, to everyone else--like, everyone else realizes what going on. And for me, if I just don't teach for long enough, I go into such teacher-withdrawal that I just start doing it without even noticing it.
Russ Roberts: So, I'll just say one last thing about this and we'll move on jealousy, which is: Sometimes I think that--I've written about this in my Adam Smith book--but the pursuit of fame is a form of neurosis, the need for approval from others. I use the example of Marilyn Monroe coming back from a USO [United Service Organizations] tour in Korea to tell her husband, Joe DiMaggio, how popular she was on the tour; and she says, 'You've never heard such cheering!' And he says, 'Oh, yes I have, actually.'
And you know, it causes you to reflect--it's not said that whimsically. It's more like it's a sense of loss there. And certainly rock stars whose stars fade, you wonder how they deal with the fact that the arenas they're in get smaller and smaller, and that--some people probably cope with it; but most people, I think it's hard.
I've never thought of teaching as a form or neurosis. But, there is something I think unhealthy, perhaps, about our need as teachers to share what we know. I find it very difficult to restrain myself, not just at dinner parties but in many, many settings. And I think, both as a parent, a spouse, as a friend: in some sense I'm always--I'm doing a lot of teaching.
Maybe that's a form of insecurity or some other form--a need for approval that I've never thought of it. And maybe I should talk less and listen more.
Agnes Callard: I do feel that my vices as a teacher are pretty well captured by this problem: that I'm a great lecturer but I struggle with leading a class discussion where I have to let other people talk.
Russ Roberts: Me, too!
Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, it's not just the question of, you know, the need to teach and that being in some way pathological, but it actually being a pathological mood[mode?] of teaching.
In terms of my own growth as a teacher, this is the Number One thing I've struggled with. I've experimented with so many different ways of trying to become more receptive to discussion.
I'm quite good with the ping-pong discussion, where every single thing the person says I respond to, because that's like a version of the two-person conversation I can handle. What's hard for me is someone says something and then someone else in the class responds; and so I don't say anything that whole time. For me, that's super- super-hard not to jump in there. And, I basically don't manage it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I've taught--I think the biggest class I've taught is a 350-person Principles of Economics class at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles]--which I, by the way, taught without a microphone, because I felt that I needed the adrenaline of performance to reach all 350 people. This was in 1988 or so. And that was a lot of fun; and it is a form of performance.
And, I think of myself as a good lecturer, and then I always think that my students think that, 'Oh, if I could take a class with him with 12 people it would be so amazing!' And actually, it's not that amazing. I'm not very good at it. I've done it. It wasn't a failure, I hope, but it wasn't nearly as good, because it was a different thing, and it's a thing I'm not so good at.
Some of it, by the way, I think is that sense that when that third person jumps into the conversation that's not ping-pong: 'Sometimes they're wrong.' Have you noticed that? And, 'You have a chance to set 'em straight, darn it; and that's what you're there for. You're there to set the--bring them the truth.'
And, I think that's somewhat--it's definitely a part of teaching, but it's not the whole thing.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. For me it's not so much that they're wrong, but that--so, suppose Person One said something and now Person Two replies. Person Two doesn't necessarily give the reply to Person One that you would have given, right?
Russ Roberts: Exactly.
Agnes Callard: And, Person Two might say something true, but what about the reply you would have given to Person One, now? Then Person Three gives a reply to Person Two and One, but you would have given a different reply. So, now there are all these replies piling up in your head that needed to be said, and no one has said them, and who is going to say them? And like, the longer this goes on, the greater the pressure for me. That's the experience.
Russ Roberts: I'm just going to reference an essay I wrote called "The Story of My Life." I think there's a--and we'll put a link up to it, and listeners can check it out if they want. But, I think a lot of that is just a form of an over-demand for control and just the need to be the center of the story. When we see ourselves more as part of an ensemble, I think we're better teachers, better friends. And it's just really hard, because I like to control things. I like to control the responses, the dialogue. EconTalk, here we are--we've gone a lot of different places I didn't expect to go, and I know it's good and I don't really need it to go the way I planned it, so I'm thrilled, but that's not always easy for me.
Russ Roberts: So, let's close with jealousy. Jealousy is a very common source of anger: Romantic jealousy, friendship jealousy, jealousy over achievement. There's the great line from Gore Vidal--it's something--I'm not going to get it right, but it's something like: 'Whenever a friend of mine has a success a little part of me dies.' That's a really hideous thought, right? Instead of celebrating a person's happiness you think why didn't I get an award?
So, there's different kinds of jealousy. Jealousy often leads to anger, and you have a very different perspective on it than any I've heard. So, explain.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, in this essay I argue that romantic jealousy is erotic: that is, it's a form of lust. So, maybe the first part of the claim there is just to recognize that jealousy is not a negative emotion--where, 'negative,' here, is not a moral claim.
It's just about: Some responses to the world are fundamentally aversive, like fear and disgust and revulsion, right? And some responses to the world are fundamentally attractive, like desire, lust, right? Wanting something.
So, I think that jealousy is typically seen as a negative or aversive emotion, but it's actually a positive or attractive emotion.
Russ Roberts: Explain.
Agnes Callard: So, I think that when you're jealous, you want something from another person, but it's something they can never give you. And so it sort of seems like you almost don't want something, but you actually do. You want the love that they have for someone else, or the attraction that they have to someone else, or whatever it is, however it is that they respond to that other person.
You know: Suppose that they have a kind of banter with that person. That, it's a silly banter or something. But they don't do that silly banter thing with you. And suddenly now that's what you want. You want them to do the silly banter thing with you. And you only want them--the only reason you picked that silly banter thing--is because that's with another that they do it. Right?
So, there was nothing independently attractive to you about the silly banter. It's that you noticed that they have this silly banter with this other person, and suddenly you're, like, 'Why don't you have that with me?'
I think what underlies that desire for the desire that they have for another is that, especially in the case of a romantic--this can happen with friendship, too, but I think especially in the case of a romantic relationship--there's this sense of the relationship as being sort of fundamental to who you are and the fundamental relationship of your life, in a way maybe the defining relationship of your life. Like, maybe it's the most foundational form of kinship in our current society. I think it could be different in other societies.
But, and so, it's kind of--it can be suffocatingly limiting, you know, to be like, 'This is my romantic partner and this is my romantic relationship, and that is it. That is who I am. That's the fundamental relationship of my life, and it defines, it limits, constrains me to be only this person and none of the other possibilities.' Like, the witty banter thing, that's not me. I don't get to live that way. I have to live my whole life without that. My whole life has excluded certain fundamental ways of being.
And I think that's sort of intolerable.
People, I think somehow, can kind of quest for that: Like they can quest for it by having serial relationships. Like, they can break up with someone and start a new relationship, where it's now, 'I can be this other person.' But the problem is in the new relationship you can't be the person you were before. Right?
And so the real underlying thing, the underlying spring of jealousy, I think, is wanting somehow to be all the people, to be the people that you're not. That's how I see it.
Russ Roberts: That's so deep. I don't totally agree with it, I'm going to challenge it. But first, I want to recognize the deep insight there, which is that I really think often of marriage or romance as aspiration in the way that you write about it in your book, where we talked about it the last time.
And, I can't be fully myself or the self I want to be--with any one person. And in some sense, marriage, loyalty, whatever you want to call it--this is friendship, I think is different--but romantic love is a fundamental acceptance that who I can become with my partner is limited by that person's humanity, their imperfection. They will transform me. They will help me become a better version of myself--in the best kind of marriage, I think. But, it can't ever be exactly what I'd like it to be--by definition, because my spouse is a human being. She doesn't have every attribute that helps me fix, improve, express who I am. So, by definition, it's imperfect. So, I just want to mention that. I think that's a profound insight.
Agnes Callard: That's a really good way of putting it. That, that is what I'm seeing here: Is that there's a kind of limit to who you can become that's constituted by the limits of that other person, and that's like--like in the face of the fact of death, it's like your life is limited--
Russ Roberts: You only get one life.
Agnes Callard: and there's something--that's all you get. Yeah. Yeah. Okay, now why is it wrong?
Russ Roberts: So, because you've left out an important part--to me--of what I think of as jealousy. What you've said, if I may say so, is provocative--in the good sense. I love it.
But, to me, I would say: paradigmatically jealousy is about betrayal. It's about a fundamental--it's not just, 'Oh, I wish I could have that bantering relationship with my wife that she has with someone else.' It's more that I see that as a betrayal. And of course there are forms of jealousy that are much stronger than that.
But, basically when a person betrays a relationship, the anger--I might covet a relationship that a friend or a spouse has with someone else. It doesn't make me angry. It makes me want--I agree with you, there is a positive side to it.
To get me angry I've got to have betrayal. And betrayal is--you know, forgiveness is really hard. Revenge is really easy. And it's hard to think about why or how, more importantly, to get to forgiveness in the face of betrayal. Maybe we'll get to that. But, react to this point about most anger in the form of jealousy is about betrayal.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. I don't think jealousy is a form of anger. So, I think that jealousy often occurs--in a way one question for us is: What is the fundamental manifestation of jealousy? That is: What are the signs of jealousy, right?
And, I think--you know, if I find out my romantic partner is cheating on me and I say, 'How could you? That is wrong,' I don't think of that as the fundamental manifestation of jealousy, because I would have responded that way--for instance, suppose that they promised to do something for me that was deeply important to me. Suppose they promised never to tell someone something that I told them and then they did? I'd be like, 'How could you? That was wrong.' That's anger.
So, I think I could be angry over the violation of any kind of moral agreement, including ones about, say, infidelity or whatever.
That's not jealousy. What jealousy is, is like: 'What was her name? Tell me about her.' Jealousy is looking for signs of that infidelity in all different kinds of behavior. It is gravitating towards it. It is obsessing over it.
Like, yeah: I would say the fundamental manifestation of jealousy is the wanting to know all of the details about the person. And that's part of why I say it's like a form of lust.
The betrayal thing--so this is the thing I cut from this piece, so maybe you'll think it has some interest, even though I think it's better without it.
Russ Roberts: Heh, heh, heh, heh--
Agnes Callard: This piece began--maybe Anastasia will be listening and she'll be amused--this piece began with the discussion of--
Russ Roberts: You're talking about the jealousy piece, now?
Agnes Callard: The jealousy piece, yeah. Originally--the original draft from a year and a half ago--began with the discussion of what happened when I told my oldest child that he was going to have a sibling. So, he was, like, four, almost five, something like that. And, he was totally devastated by this information--we were driving in the car--and just, like, overwhelmed with sadness and betrayal, just kind of crying and sobbing and outrage.
And, I said, 'You know we're not going to love you any less.' And he said, 'I know that. I don't want you to love another child.'
And, he felt betrayed. He thought we had a deal. Right? And the deal was he was the child and I was the parent and that was our relationship, and there was no provision made for some other child entering this story. And he was, like, deeply betrayed and outraged and had his moral sensibility violated by this thing, where there had been no--like I didn't run this by him, right?
And, you know, what I was reflecting on is how, when I tell that story, people think this is cute and funny and they're like, 'How silly kids are,' you know--like, as though he didn't have in some way as much of a perfect right to his way of viewing the situation as someone does with their spouse. Like, he thought he was going to be--you know, that's what he thought this relationship was: He thought it was exclusive. Right?
And, so, I think you're right that there's this sense of betrayal and exclusivity, but in a way the deeper question is why is the exclusivity written into that relationship as opposed to other ones where it could be written in and you could get the same feeling of betrayal?
Russ Roberts: That's a really powerful story, actually. I don't know if I'm sorry you took it out. It may have been bad for the piece. But it's certainly an interesting story about parenting and human relations and expectations.
Russ Roberts: Let's close and talk about forgiveness. In that setting, of course, if you're lucky, a child gets a sibling that they come to love, that makes their life better, and they realize it wasn't a bad thing after all and they forgive you.
But, I think it's a lot harder--the bantering--again, I like to use--we're using a G-rated example--the bantering of a spouse with another is hard to forgive in certain settings.
My original growing up, I was taught that forgiveness was a form of weakness. In many settings you should seek revenge, because justice requires revenge. I don't mean in the spousal setting. I mean in the general-life setting.
I've come to believe that forgiveness is better than revenge. Or I want to--I aspire, to use your word, to prefer forgiveness to revenge--not meaning that I justify what happened, but that I'm just going to put it down. I'm not going to carry it with me.
And I just want to alert readers to this interesting example of Eva Kor, who--last name K-O-R, Kor--who forgave the doctor who worked with Mengele in Auschwitz and who abused her horribly. We'll put a link up to a story of why she made that decision. I'll put a link to a talk on forgiveness that I like.
And, you know, it's tempting to say that some crimes are unforgivable. Some abuses, some betrayals are unforgivable. I've come to believe that may not be true: that sometimes it's better to forgive and not to justify, but to just say, 'I'm not going to carry this around as a source of anger.' And that sort of brings us full circle to where we started. 'I'm not going to let the past ruin my future.' What do you think of that?
Agnes Callard: So, I think there's something paradoxical about the idea of devising or suggesting that somebody forgive, because I think forgiveness--this gets us back to the self-sufficiency point. I think you can forgive when you can, in a self-sufficient way, sustain the norm without the help of the other person--when you get to that point where you're sort of independent of them. And, that's awesome, if you can do that. Just like it's awesome if you can step back and reflect and not feel your anger. Those are better alternatives to revenge.
But, the very idea of advising someone to do this suggests that you see them as not being self-sufficient--as needing in some way the advice that they should forgive. And that undermines the thought that they would be in a position to do so. So, I think that sometimes we are not so self-sufficient.
And so, if you imagine, for instance--let's imagine a couple. Right? And so, the husband has been engaging in banter with another woman. And, you know, it's been going on for some time, and his wife is resentful, and angry, and vengeful about all of this. And he is saying, 'Why doesn't she just forgive me?'
And, he wants her to do it--the husband, now--is kind of asking her to do it in a self-sufficient way.
The very request that she do it in that self-sufficient way is a kind of refusal to participate in the process. It's like a refusal to help her, right? And, it's almost like--so at least of the time--it depends on who's putting the request to forgive, right?
But, what I'm trying to bring out is that the request to forgive is itself a move in the game, and it's often an incoherent move in the game. And it's like probably she desperately wants to forgive him. Probably there is nothing she wants more than to forgive him. But she's not self-sufficient. She wouldn't continue to be angry if she were self-sufficient, right?
There's something that the husband needs to do, but he doesn't want to do it. What he wants to do--what he doesn't want to do--is ask for forgiveness. Or, make it be the case, make it somehow--lighten the burden of her forgiveness for her, to make it more possible, to help her. And, maybe partly because that would require him facing his own sense of shame about what he's been doing. Right?
And so, he wants the forgiveness to happen so that it can all be swept under the rug, so that we could pretend it's not there. And, her thought is like: That very fact that you're trying to sweep this under the rug is making me feel like I need to hold onto it, right? Because you're saying to me that you don't grasp the significance of what has happened and that you're not going to help me hold up this moral principle. You're going to make me do it on my own. But, if you make me do it on my own this is how I'm doing it. Right?
So, the process is really one where there has to be some way by which the relationship is healed, and the simple demand for forgiveness can be a way of refusing to participate in that.
Russ Roberts: I think there's a--to play economist for a minute--I think our inability to forgive those around us, and most importantly to forgive ourselves, is often a fear that we've created a moral hazard--a change-the-incentives. That, 'If I don't judge myself harshly, I'll be a bad person again in the future.' And, if the person doesn't judge their spouse harshly then, 'Of course the spouse is going to continue to cheat,' and they'll continue to banter with other people. And, why would I want to give them that lower price?
The anger is often a way of saying: I will hold this person accountable. I will make sure that the price is high; and that will discourage future misbehavior.
And I think ironically that's probably not the way to go. I'm not sure most of us have a way to go either with ourselves or with others. It's something I think about a lot. I thought about trying to write about it some time. But, do you have any thoughts on that?
Agnes Callard: Yeah. I just think that that's absolutely right, but the very idea of holding the other person accountable, here's a phrase I would use: Unilaterally holding them accountable. That is, the idea is you can no longer trust them or count on them to be part of the process of holding up the norm. You kind of have to like do it for them. Right?
And so, like, the very idea of punishment is the thought that the person that we're punishing is not sufficiently possessed of the relevant moral sensibility, so to speak, to punish themselves.
And so, if one person in a relationship has to hold the other person accountable, that is a sign that the relationship has fallen into a kind of degraded condition in which the work of sustaining the norms is no longer divided equally between the two.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's just hard to imagine how a person can--I mean, obviously a person who betrays a spouse, a friend, a lover, often wants to self-flagellate, punish themselves--in a totally unhelpful way on paper--by doing something harmful to themselves, which of course isn't really what the other person wants. But it does convey at least a sense of recognition of the betrayal.
It's not obvious to me on how you get there from here. In fact I struggled in how to improve this, doing better than that. I struggled to think of great works of art that described the process you're talking about, which makes me wonder whether it's really imaginably--whether it's possible.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. This self-flagellation is another version of the attempt to take the problem into your own hands, right?
Russ Roberts: True.
Agnes Callard: So, it's like that's the thing everyone always wants to do, I guess.
When there is anger, generally something has gone wrong. It may be that the anger itself is what has gone wrong, but often there's something else also. There's, like, a problem. The anger isn't the only problem. There's some other problem.
And I do think that there's a very strong tendency to respond by saying, 'I'll solve this problem all by myself somehow.' Either I'll get revenge, or I'll take a step back and lose my anger, or I'll self-flagellate.
But, in general my feeling is just a lot of the time the participants are not sufficient unto themselves to solve the problem. They need each other's help.
Russ Roberts: Let's close with that. And, listeners: self-flagellation just means to whip yourself or to beat yourself up. And I think we're all pretty good at that in various settings. It's interesting, one might think that would be irrational or not utility-maximizing, but we're pretty good at it.
Agnes Callard: Or immoral, as I think.
Russ Roberts: You think it's amoral to do it?
Russ Roberts: Oh, immoral?
Agnes Callard: I think it's immoral to flagellate yourself. You're one of the human beings in the world and you shouldn't inflict punishment for no reason on another human being. You have as much right not to be treated that way as anyone else; and I think we take liberties with ourselves that are wrong.
Russ Roberts: But, we're punishing ourselves not for no reason, but because we betrayed something.
Agnes Callard: It may be that in some cases we are punishing ourselves for a good reason. Then it's okay, because you're allowed to punish for good reason.
But, I think we take liberties with ourselves. I think we flagellate ourselves and inflict punishment on ourselves in a kind of indiscriminate way, as though the fact that we are ourselves creates a kind of moral excuse for doing so.
Russ Roberts: I was thinking what gives me the right to judge other people. If I'm tough on myself then I can be tough on others--which I think is a horrible thought, but I suspect there's some truth to it.
What I wanted to close with is to let--hear you talk again about self-sufficiency in this setting so I understand a little better. Is it correct to say you're saying in a situation of betrayal or jealousy that the two people need to work together? That it's impossible for any one person of the relationship to solve it, so they need each other to solve it? And that the anger is--how does the anger fit in with that? Help me bring it all together.
Agnes Callard: Yeah. I think that anger is kind of cry for help is one way to hear anger. That's not all that it is, but it is something--that anger tends to make itself known, to make itself visible to the person that you're angry to, so you want them to notice it. Right?
And, in general, when you want someone to notice something about you, you're trying to get their attention and you're trying to get them to participate with you in something that you can't do by yourself. So, at a simple level I think that's what's going on with anger. You're sending a signal to someone else that they should be attending to you and engaging with you somehow.
I'm not saying that I think it's impossible to work through on your own, but I think, often, in a given situation, for a given set of people, within a given time frame it is impossible.
And so, I think that the people, that the problem with anger is that it tends to be the case that you need help, but it tends to be the case that you also least want to accept or request help from the one person who can help you, and that is why anger is such an intractable problem.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Agnes Callard. I hope nothing I said today, Agnes, made you angry with me. Certainly that was not the case with you. It was a lovely conversation. Thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Agnes Callard: Thanks so much.